Last night I saw the famous Spirited Away in theaters— the Miyazaki classic, 2002 Oscar winner, and only anime film on the New York Times list of Best Films of the 21st Century (so far). Seeing it in theaters was astounding; I got to appreciate the soundtrack and sound design on a whole new level. I was able to experience the film the way it was made to be seen and the group of people I went with made it such a wonderful night.
But everyone laughed during one of my favorite scenes and it kind of pissed me off.
The scene I’m talking about is early in the movie, right after Chihiro sees her parents in the pigsty for the first time. She’s had a rough day. She’s been sucked into the spirit world, taken from her parents (who are now pigs), and forced into supernatural indentured servitude with a witch. That’s a long day for a ten-year-old. Chihiro spends the whole night in her bed trembling. After seeing her parents and promising to save them, she sits outside the barn in anguish— silent and curled into herself. Haku offers her some food, she eats it and starts to cry.
The theater breaks out laughing.
Yes, I get it, she’s sobbing noisily and stuffing her face with rice. That makes people laugh. But I have such a different perception of this scene. I think it’s extremely powerful and beautiful.
Chihiro has the worst day of her life. She encounters demons, loses her family and her identity, and becomes a slave. But not once does she cry. She freaks out, sure; she's hyperventilating when Haku finds her near the river. She tears up, but never cries. Everything is too crazy for her to relieve her emotions. Chihiro copes by dissociating herself so she can get through it. She builds up a wall and lets nothing in.
This scene is the first moment of calm in the movie. The music relaxes, the flowers are beautiful, and the sun is shining. Chihiro finally has a moment to breathe and grasp the situation. Still in shock that her parents are now mud-eaters, she sits in morbid silence until Haku comes up to her. “You haven’t eaten,” he says. “Take these. I put a spell on them so they will give you back your strength.”
Whether Haku actually put a spell on the onigiri doesn’t matter, the implications of the scene still stand. It takes strength to face your emotions and your fears. It takes strength to let yourself cry. By eating— by receiving sustenance and strength— Chihiro gets the courage to accept her situation and her weakness. She has the strength to cry and let Haku comfort her.
Yes, sobbing while stuffing your face with rice can be funny. But this scene is more than that. It portrays an aspect of the human condition that everyone experiences. Sometimes, it takes strength to let yourself overflow. Sometimes, it takes courage to let yourself be afraid.